CRAWFORD | UK's unbeaten regular season deserves a pause for reflection
The University of Kentucky has finished an unbeaten regular season, and Eric Crawford says it's time to reflect more upon that accomplishment, and less on some scattered criticism of the program.
Sunday, March 8th 2015, 3:55 am EDT by
Sunday, March 8th 2015, 12:49 pm EDT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The fashionable thing is to say the regular season doesn't mean anything. It's not without some truth. Teams are remembered for what they do in the NCAA Tournament. Nobody's arguing that.
But when you finish the regular season unbeaten, it does mean something. It's important. It's historic. It means never having an off night — or if you do, persevering through it to maintain a perfect record.
The University of Kentucky basketball team said goodbye to Rupp Arena for the 2015 season with a 67-50 win over Florida that boosted the Wildcats to 31-0.
For the Smartphone users among you, let's put a pin in that moment. It's only happened twice in UK history. It's only happened 17 times in NCAA Division I history.
It should be celebrated. It should be respected. It shouldn't be a footnote.
But if you listen to UK coach John Calipari, you might get the idea that it isn't being celebrated. Calipari has a way of focusing only on the negative things said or written about his program, and ignoring the avalanche of positive things people are saying.
One writer at The Rolling Stone asked whether UK is killing college basketball. UK is doing no such thing, and by the end of his piece, he even allows, “It's possible that the best thing for college basketball would be an undefeated Kentucky team.”
But one guy's attention-grabbing headline became a rallying cry for UK followers. A Boston Globe columnist took Calipari to task for the Marcus Camby violation at UMass that led to that school vacating its Final Four run. He's incensed that the school would honor Calipari next year on the anniversary of that run.
He doesn't mention that an NCAA representative later wrote to Calipari that the enforcement committee believed him to be without fault in the Camby situation.
Critics are part of the game. People rooting against you are part of the game.
But I suspect that as the Wildcats have gotten closer and closer to their goal of perfection, more people have begun to root for them than not.
Driving home Saturday night, I turned on ESPN radio and one caller after another expressed hope that the Wildcats would finish their run. Callers from South Carolina, from Alabama, from Missouri and the West Coast. One was an Indiana graduate.
“It's not only you coming at them,” Calipari told reporters, talking about his players after UK's win over Florida.
What is he talking about? Nobody is “coming at” his players. At the very least, if there was criticism during this season, it wasn't out of line for what you see of other players from other programs. Instead, all I've seen is respect for what his players are doing, for the sacrifices they've made despite the talent they have.
“The biggest thing I'm trying to tell these guys, I'm telling my staff, man, we all have to stay connected and enjoy this,” Calipari said. “I'll tell you, I would imagine - just saying - there will be some stuff written and said. I want to tell you all, no one will steal my joy. If you want to attack what we're doing, be nasty about it, have at it. You're not stealing my joy. Coaching this team, with these kind of kids, you're not stealing my joy.”
Calipari smiled while saying it, but the fact that he would take time after completing an unbeaten season to talk about it says that it does steal his joy, he does worry about it, he has to talk about it.
In some ways, it fuels him, and it always has. To the point that even in the midst of an unbeaten season, he's had to create straw arguments and bat them down as a way of, perhaps, driving himself.
Calipari is right about this, however.
“This is a great story for college athletics, for society,” he said. “Instead of me, me, me, it's us, us, us. When you do that, we all benefit Every one of these players has benefited by this. I'm not just talking about they won. No, their stock personally has risen, every one of them. This is how this is supposed to work. We do this together, everyone benefits. Not the school, not the coach, all the players benefit. That's what's happening and I'm proud of them.”
It is hard — except for a pocket of fierce rival fans — to root against these guys individually or as a group. It's harder still once you've met them. They were good kids to start with, and going through all of this has made many of them more thoughtful when it comes to answering media questions, and seeing the overwhelming response of Kentucky fans has made them more thoughtful in dealing with the public.
More than anyone, those fans deserve to celebrate without being derided for it. What program in America wouldn't want to be in Kentucky's shoes right now?
For Calipari, perhaps it's not quite comfortable. He's no longer the outsider. He's no longer the rebel, as much as he sees himself in that mode. He's Apple. He's Ford. He's the establishment. He's a finalist for the Naismith Hall of Fame. All those criticisms of the past, people can bring them up all they want, but that's the past.
Think ESPN isn't celebrating? The Worldwide Leader is promoting UK games like they are prize fights. They're running every Calipari postgame news conference live. Jay Bilas gave the team a locker room pep talk before the season. ESPN is all in, and it is the largest megaphone in sports. He's no longer an outsider.
When Calipari was hired at Kentucky, I wrote that his legacy — for good or ill — would be whatever he accomplishes at Kentucky, not what happened at UMass, or at Memphis, or in the NBA.
So what has Calipari done? He's won a higher percentage of his games than even Adolph Rupp. He's won one national title and played for another. He's put enough guys into the NBA to start his own summer league. And now he has completed an undefeated regular season — and maybe more. He has the first team since UNLV to start the season at No. 1 and never leave that spot.
There will always be critics. But it's time, with a perfect regular season behind and the possibility of a perfect tournament ahead, to leave the begrudgers behind and start embracing the many who recognize and respect what Calipari and UK are doing.
There is no program or coach for whom every knee will bow and tongue confess.
But for Kentucky basketball right now, this is as good as it gets. More than that, it might be as good as it has ever been — and this is a program which has known some pretty good times — and as good as it ever will be.
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